Internet & Tech

Wake up and smell the copy

China’s ambitions in 3D printing are huge. Some predict trouble ahead


A 3D printer at work

American law student Cody Wilson has made things more difficult for the 3D printing industry. That’s after the gun enthusiast used the new technology to create a fully functional firearm. The weapon is a security nightmare, especially as the plans have been posted online and downloaded more than 100,000 times, reports Der Spiegel. The gun can be manufactured (or rather, printed) in plastic by anyone with the appropriate piece of 3D kit. Then it can be fired.

The focus on Wilson’s design has drawn attention away from how the cutting edge technology is more helpfully used. For example, sports shoe companies Nike and Adidas have told the Financial Times that they have been able to accelerate their design cycle by printing out prototypes of new trainers (or sneakers, to American readers).

Little of this is being lost in China, host to last month’s World 3D Printing Technology Industry Conference in Beijing. In just three years time, sales from 3D printing will reach Rmb10 billion ($1.63 billion), says Luo Jun, the secretary of the 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance. A tenfold increase from today, such an outcome would make China the largest market for the new technology, reports Forbes China.

Printers are already being put to use in a range of projects, including creating parts for China’s first aircraft carrier, and for commercial and military aircraft design, says the Securities Times.

Along with the optimism there are also words of warning about how the technology might develop. Forbes China is worried that the industry could grow along the lines of solar power, a sector swollen with overcapacity and in which many firms are struggling to survive.

The comparison with solar is apt. Less than a decade ago, Germany was the world’s largest producer of solar panels, taking 60% of global revenues. By 2010, China had grown from a tiny base to capture more than 50% of the market. But solar companies grew too fast because they were typically recipients of state support in the form of cheap loans and free land. There are already signs that the pattern might repeat itself for 3D printing.

Luo Jun, a former employee of the state planning body the NDRC (see WiC195), said that his 3D alliance will work with 10 cities to establish industrial clusters in places like Qingdao and Nanjing.

But Luo gave less detail when Forbes China asked whether these cities would specialise in a particular area of the supply chain or each seek to do everything and then compete among themselves for business, driving down margins.

The applicability of the 3D technology to China is a broader issue, especially whether it will be too expensive for many manufacturers to employ. Zheng Lianmang, sales manager at Nanjing Baoyan Automation, told Global Times that manufacturers are apprehensive about the poor efficiency of many of the printers, citing the 40 hours that it currently takes to produce a prototype of an aircraft door handle.

So far China has seven companies producing 3D equipment, which is not far behind the US which has 16.

But Chinese-made printers already lag in terms of quality, failing to match the precision of their foreign competitors, reports the Global Times. And many of the critical components for the printing machines are imported from abroad.

Yet China may have little choice but to bet big on the new technology. When Gutenberg invented the printing press in the fifteenth century, it supercharged the Renaissance and laid the ground for the Industrial Revolution in Europe by facilitating scientific publishing on a continental scale. This new type of printer could prove revolutionary too, even potentially replacing assembly lines and allowing consumers to custom-make the goods or products that they desire.

As the ‘world’s factory’ China is especially exposed to such a manufacturing revolution…

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